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Comparative Technology Transfer and Society 2.1 (2004) 24-30

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Notes from the Field

Roger D. Launius

The International Space Station (ISS) has been at the center of a debate over technology transfer since even before its inception. The movement of knowledge from one entity to another about space hardware and the techniques necessary for creating it has long been of concern to government policymakers and commercial leaders. There are two sides of this debate, each in tension with the other. First, at a fundamental level technology transfer represents a positive partnership between government, industry, and research institutions as knowledge is made available to all potential locations on an equal basis. Because of this, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has sought to undertake cooperative ventures from its earliest years, sometimes with notable success. This story is well known (Frutkin, 1965; Johnson-Freese, 1990; Logsdon, 1984; Whalen, Wiliamson, & Acker, 1995).

Second, and what I wish to focus on in this short essay, is the effort by NASA and many other organizations to stem the flow of technical knowledge to rivals, be they corporations, other nations, or research teams. Knowledge represents power, and concerns over its spread have led political leaders in the United States to create a strict control regime governing international technology transfer. Accordingly, the prevention of technology transfer to competitor nations with the ISS serves as an especially important sticking point in all aspects of the program. (There is considerable [End Page 24] literature on this subject in the spaceflight arena; see, for example, Allen, 1984; Bonnet & Manno, 1994; Garud & Nayyar, 1994; Krige, 1997; Logsdon, 1991; Pedersen, 1992; Pinelli, Barclay, Kennedy, & Bishop, 1997; Shaffer & Shaffer, 1980.)

NASA sought to cooperate with European allies during the development of the space shuttle in the early 1970s, but some technologists in NASA, and even more in the U.S. Department of State, expressed fears that bringing other nations into any significant space project really meant giving them technical knowledge that only the United States held. Only a few nations were space-faring at all, and only a subset of those had significant capabilities; many American leaders voiced reservations about the advisability of ending technological monopolies. Initially promised complete involvement, in the end other nations—even close allies—only tangentially participated in the shuttle development effort. The French were so upset over the issue that they persuaded most of the other nations of Europe to create the European Space Agency (ESA) and to develop the Ariane launch vehicle as a competitor to the Space Shuttle (Launius, 1995; Sebesta, 1994).

The concerns found repetition in the space station program, but with a different result. As early as 1980, NASA began establishing technology transfer offices and setting aside funds to oversee technology transfer in response to the Stevenson-Wydler Technology Innovation Act. This aimed toward fostering technology transfer and opened greater possibilities for international cooperation; NASA negotiated several agreements with other nations to construct parts of the space station (Logsdon, 1998). At the same time, NASA officials worried that the United States might lose technological superiority through these agreements. In a 1984 letter to the European leaders to whom he had pitched the space station program during a trip, NASA administrator James M. Beggs commented that "technology transfer has been an increasing concern on all our parts in the past few years, and we will need to work together to make sure we are protecting our mutual technology bases in this partnership" (NASA Historical Reference Collection, 1984).

Accordingly, in April 1984 NASA developed standards to prevent "adverse technology transfer" while still encouraging international cooperation in the space station program. This found concrete expression in policies established at NASA in the fall of that year to limit the flow of technical data by compartmentalizing it and withholding all but what was necessary for any individual task. NASA also developed a review program to ensure that critical data did not end up in "the wrong hands." These checks on the system have become more sophisticated over time, so much [End Page 25] so that many NASA engineers...


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